ELYRIA — Many people don’t even know it’s there, nestled between office buildings in downtown Elyria.
For those who do, it has been a grocery store when bellies were empty, a clothing store when shoes needed replaced and a means to sustain a family when there is nowhere else to turn.
This year, the Elyria Hospitality Center celebrates its 25th anniversary, and the agency shows no signs of slowing down.
Paul Kuebler Jr., one of the co-founders of the center and chairman of its board of directors, said the concept for the center came when the downtown churches began noticing a growing demand for services. Originally conceived as a drop-in spot for coffee and a bit of rest, services expanded to what they are today.
Residents who meet the federal poverty level guidelines are able to stop by the center to pick up needed items — anything from canned goods to produce to meat, clothing and even some household goods.
And it wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the community.
The center partners with Second Harvest Food Bank and other area agencies for food items, but without donations and volunteers, the center couldn’t operate.
Elyria Hospitality Center is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays with 15 to 20 volunteers showing up throughout the month to prepare. On average, a total of 400 people walk through the doors of the center each month. Most of those 400 people have families, so the center actually serves about 1,500 each month.
“For the last three to four years, we’ve seen an increase each year,” Kuebler said.
He also has seen an increase of 5 percent to 8 percent in family size, with grandparents or extended family living with immediate family.
“We are not an advocacy group,” he said. “We have lists we can refer people to for rent help, etc., but it’s not part of our charter to ‘graduate’ people. Our object is for people coming here to get two to three days’ worth of food. Some people we see once a year, some people we see once a lifetime, and some we see every month.”
While it could be frustrating to realize that the need never quite goes away, that’s not the case for Kuebler.
The biggest reward for Kuebler has been seeing the appreciation of the center’s customers.
“Eighty percent of the people are very appreciative of what they get,” he said. “People are very accommodating of others. It’s interesting to see how the people are in it together — those who are serving and those who receive services.
“Some people who used the facility in the past, and later not had to, come back and make donations or volunteer their time,” he said. “One man brings bread in every once in awhile, and he also gets food (from the center’s pantry.)”
Polly Simmons and her husband, Charles “Bud” Simmons, recently stepped down as co-directors of the center’s day-to-day operations after 11 years, but they haven’t stepped away from volunteering.
“We didn’t know it existed before we started, but we found a whole new world for us,” she said. “It has been very rewarding.”
She encounters people who have recently lost their job who are unemployable, and elderly people who are just having trouble making ends meet.
The dedication of the volunteers and the outpouring from the community has made it worthwhile for Simmons.
“The community has certainly come to our aid when we’ve needed it,” she said. “A lot of times we will need money or food, and I think someone is watching over us because we get it. It’s just phenomenal, really. Our shelves will be empty and someone will drop off a donation, or drive up with a car load of food. I’ve found it rather enlightening.”
The Simmons plan to keep volunteering for as long as they can, but their spots as co-directors still need filled.
For more information about the position or to learn about making donations or receiving services, visit the center’s website at www.elyriahospitality
center.com or view its Facebook page.